The Mind/Body Problem: On the Optic and Somatic in Vicente Dopico-Lerner’s Paintings
Cuban contemporary art, like its counterparts around the world, has gone through myriad transformations in response to sociopolitical conditions both within Cuba and outside of it. This can be seen in the broad array of Cuban artworks that are formally as well as topically diverse. Even when Cuban artists focus on local politics, their art can speak to similar dynamics in other global, geo-political contexts. This also seems axiomatic for Cuban artists who explore the human condition via artistic vocabularies devoid of recognizable cultural signifiers, yet upon further scrutiny, embody a degree of transnationalism in their ability to engage an international audience. Ditto with the Miami-based, Cuban painter Vicente Dopico-Lerner.
Vicente Dopico-Lerner is a unique artist and not only because of his distinct style, for his practice is potentially informed by other activities often not the purview of his art-making colleagues. Although his mainstay is painting, Dopico-Lerner has ventured into the fields of writing as bona fide art critic as well as museum director with its attendant curatorial responsibilities. It may seem that this trifecta of activities is emphatically delineated, but one can see the thought process of writing in Dopico-Lerner’s painting, rife with a confident métier and ostensible calligraphic meanderings of brushwork, which are not dissimilar to the mental steadfastness that accompanies the physical act of inscription. And even the manner in which Dopico-Lerner composes his paintings, in which some seem carefully designed while others appear more improvisational, are executed with a kind of curatorial acumen alluding to his work within the museum field. But it’s Dopico-Lerner’s painting that first and foremost sets him apart from his artistic peers.
Vicente Dopico-Lerner’s painting is diligent to a global art history all the while engaged with its contemporary discourse. This is underscored in a distinct formal signature that cites the past but with a sovereign freshness, not unlike other painters who have transformed their predecessors while remaining stylistically individualized. Regarding the latter, John Currin cites seventeenth-century Mannerism, Jenny Saville tropes Lucien Freud, Glenn Brown reworks Frank Auerbach, and Cecily Brown updates Willem de Kooning, to name a just a few. Vicente Dopico-Lerner too, is attendant to a history of international art in a corpus that is rich with sources that seem to have subsumed twentieth-century abstraction that developed in Europe and across the Americas. Dopico-Lerner’s artistic methodology entails, for example, swaths of color not unlike Color Field which, in turn, are in counterpoint to his swirls of pigment akin to hairline palpitations associated with Kandinsky. At other times Dopico-Lerner’s pictorial marks nod towards the drips of Jackson Pollock, and in other instances his painterly inflections have no discernible pedigree whatsoever. But another distinguishable aspect of Dopico-Lerner’s art is that he converges the visual intensities of pure abstraction with figuration resulting in a painting style imbued with formal verve and a sublime aesthetic.
Vicente Dopico-Lerner’s iconography, however, evokes the archetypal rather than mimetic renderings of the anthropomorphic. He conjures silhouette-like humanoids from the deep recesses of our collective unconscious to remind us of our common humanity. These other-worldly phantoms are simultaneously startling as they are compelling in engendering an optical delirium in the viewer. Often composed in profile or three-quarter view, the figures are mostly set within a polychromatic, pulsating pictorial space that pushes figure/ground dynamics into a paradoxical balanced disequilibrium. At other times, the poetic chaos of Dopico-Lerner’s markmaking manifests within the contours of his figures’ heads. In delineating his painterly inscriptions within these psychic borders there is allusion to the external manifestation of thought, as Dopico-Lerner’s confident brushstrokes become metaphors for thinking or some mystical type of cognitive activity. Dopico-Lerner’s compositional modus operandi creates a visually and conceptually palpable tension between the viscous surfaces of his canvases and the cerebral yet somatic quality of their being. To underscore the broad purview of Dopico-Lerner’s artistry, one need only to look when the artist consciously sets his own limitations as is the case with Under the Moon of May (2018).
Under the Moon of May is a mixed-media work on canvas that is dominated by an overall monochromatic palette. In this sense, the work is not dissimilar to historical grisaille. Grisaille was an art form that first appears in Medieval illuminated manuscripts and then later taken up by Renaissance artists and generally falling out of favor by the end of the nineteenth century. In the Middle Ages, grisaille was often employed out of necessity because of inaccessibility of colors, and then deployed as undercoating across a canvas in the Renaissance and later as a way of asserting one’ artistic superiority. The latter was a rhetorical maneuver: if one could successfully articulate three-dimensional composition on a two-dimensional surface in grisaille as well as any other artist in polychrome, that would underscore the mastery of one artist over another. While this may not be the initial impetus for Dopico-Lerner to work in the monochrome, it does point to a meticulous if not conceptual approach to painting by expanding its practice vis-à-vis its chromatic limitation. There have been other painters such as Mark Tansey who are known for a conceptualist painting, and Dopico-Lerner’s Under the Moon of May is, to a lesser or greater degree, an example of this genre as well. In contrast to this cool conceptualism, however, is that Dopico-Lerner can also paint and capture a panoply of emotion in his artworks. This underscored in the expressionist and cathartic qualities that his mark-making can take evinced in Un dia cualquiera (2016).
Un dia cualquiera is a large 48 x 36 inch vertical painting of a figure in profile from the midriff looking to its right. A dominant passage in saturated yellow buoys the figure’s beautifully rendered attire of what appears to be multi-colored velvet. This rather peaceful and melancholic portrayal is offset by intense, chaotic looking hair articulated by drips and lines of multicolored pigment that seem to fly off the figure’s head in all directions. There is undeniable beauty here that does not quite veer into the grotesque, but that stops the viewer dead in their tracks in being confronted by such contradictions: precise yet seemingly random, peaceful and concomitantly violent, warm and cool colors, and a master’s grace coupled with a neophyte’s abandon.
Vicente Dopico-Lerner’s paintings are inundated with such artistic paradoxes that make his art that much more inventive and powerful. Through the aforementioned juxtapositions of form and content, there is philosophical exegesis that the artist explores as the artistic heir of a Cartesian mind/body problem extended into aesthetic registers residing somewhere between seeing and touching, and the optical and the somatic.
Raúl Zamudio, Independent Curator, Art Critic & Historian
December 2018, New York City